The Nuclear Renaissance and emergency management A new generation of nuclear power is growing in the US. How will this impact emergency management?
A new generation of nuclear power in the United States appears to be on the horizon, bringing new plant designs and new sites — and also the same doubts and fears about nuclear energy that have followed the technology from the beginning.
The first controlled atomic chain reaction, under the stands of a Chicago athletic field on Dec. 2, 1942, set nuclear technology on a path that was split, just like the atom itself.
The first path was the development of atomic weapons, which both ended the Second World War and helped to create the Cold War. The fear generated by those decades was symbolized by the mushroom cloud, immortalized by photos from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The second path was the gradual growth of peaceful nuclear technology, largely as a way to generate electricity. But especially following the accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Station near Harrisburg, Pa., in March 1979, the cooling tower joined the mushroom cloud as a symbol of the public’s fear of nuclear power.
A resurgence of nuclear power
Commercial nuclear power currently provides the nation with about 20 percent of its energy. Along with solar, wind, coal and hydro-based systems, nuclear power will be important to meeting the nation’s growing energy demands in the 21st century.
The Nuclear Renaissance, a likely expansion of the nuclear power sector, will rely in part on the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which provided financial incentives to the nuclear industry.
The United States currently has 104 licensed nuclear reactors at 65 sites in 30 states. Surrounding those 65 sites are 203 “Risk Counties,” which have the direct responsibility to protect public health and safety in and around nuclear power plants.
Over the next few years, approximately 31 new reactor applications are expected to be submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for operations expected to begin between 2016 and 2020.
Twenty of these new reactors are expansions of existing sites, while six to 10 reactors will be at “greenfield” sites where there is no existing nuclear facility. These new sites will add about 15–20 Risk Counties to the inventory.
From fear to respect
The public learned their fear of nuclear technology, so perhaps they can unlearn it. With education and experience, it’s possible that fear of nuclear power can be replaced with a realistic respect for its risks and benefits.
For example, we can learn that uranium used for nuclear weapons is enriched to over 95% purity, while the same element is only enriched to less than 5% for nuclear power plant fuel.
A commonly cited figure is that there is more than 16 billion curies of radiation in a nuclear power reactor’s core, which is 1,000 greater than the amount in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II. When you hear this figure, your mind immediately sees a mushroom cloud.
In fact, the core of a nuclear reactor is much larger than the core of an atomic weapon. However, because of the much lower degree of enrichment, while nuclear fuel can in fact burn, it is engineered not to explode.
Because the nuclear power industry knows that it’s harnessing the power of a hazardous material, it has engineered many safety and security systems into the design of a nuclear power facility. The industry has also learned from its past, especially the incidents at Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. Just like the aviation industry and other sectors that have had catastrophic accidents and improved because of them, the nuclear industry has learned from mistakes.
The new reactor designs are engineered to be smaller, safer and stronger than the reactors engineered in the 1960s. Fewer system parts mean fewer things can break.
Even though Three Mile Island remains the iconic U.S. nuclear accident, very little radiation was released into the public. A large number of people were evacuated, but there was no direct loss of life or property. In fact, some people, based on where they live in the United States, receive more natural background radiation each year than was ever received by the public at Three Mile Island.
Lessons learned from the accident at Three Mile Island led to the robust radiological emergency preparedness programs in place today.
Models of preparedness
The NRC and FEMA share the responsibility for ensuring that nuclear facilities operate in a safe manner, and that the local and state emergency management programs are sound. In the unlikely event of an emergency at a nuclear plant, plans and procedures are in place to fix the problem before any release of radiation into the environment.
But if there were to be a release, both plant and local authorities are prepared to take the appropriate measures to alert the public to the danger and to provide the best possible protective actions designed to protect the public from harm.
Because of the extensive planning and exercise requirements for both the on-site and off-site agencies and the oversight by the NRC and FEMA, the communities hosting nuclear power plants are generally better prepared and trained, to respond effectively not only to meet a nuclear power plant emergency, but any emergency that could affect the community.
Several national preparedness programs have evolved from the successful Radiological Emergency Preparedness (REP) program. The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program took several of the REP planning and evaluation pieces and used it to build the new national exercise and evaluation standard.
Moreover, in several non-nuclear accidents in Risk Counties that caused a shelter-in-place, an evacuation or monitoring of an evacuated public, local emergency management officials credit their success in protecting the public to their extensive REP training and exercises dealing with alerts and warnings, traffic management, mass-care sheltering, and public monitoring and decontamination.
For example, a train derailment at night several years ago in South Carolina released chemical vapors into the community. The county used its REP program experience to alert the public, efficiently coordinate an evacuation and set up temporary shelters.
Drilling into this preparedness a little deeper, support for public warning and emergency public information has been fully developed in the REP program. This program helped set the standard for public warning after the Emergency Alert System transitioned from the earlier Emergency Broadcast System.
The use of indoor warning radios for special facilities and the general public was advanced by REP communities, and new technologies are being established and promoted in these communities to better alert the public through e-mail, cell phone texting and other “social networking” modes.
Public information for the general and transient public to inform them of what to do in the event of the siren sounding for a nuclear emergency has evolved into similar material used for multiple hazards.
This has further promoted the personal emergency preparedness concept of “Head, Hand and Home,” in having a family plan (head), an evacuation Go Kit (hand), and a home 72-hour emergency supply cache (home).
The extensive exercise and evaluation program that Risk Counties must participate in each year also contributes to a stronger, more comprehensive multi-hazard emergency response program.
Many of the major tasks of command and control, alert and warning, emergency public information, communications, traffic management, evacuation, and reentry would be useful in any emergency.
Emergency training for law enforcement, fire, hospital and emergency medical, public works, and transportation personnel provides a trained and ready workforce whose tasks in a nuclear emergency are the same as those needed in a hazmat or biological incident or in a natural catastrophe.
Resources mandated by the REP program to support the special populations of schools, child- and adult-care facilities, and the elderly or medically fragile are extremely helpful in other community-wide emergencies.
Command and control training using varied and changing scenarios leads to a stronger, more flexible decision-making process. Some communities have adopted the REP tiered response program of Unusual Event, Alert, Site Area and General Emergency designations and its linked response to multi-hazard incidents as a means of using plain text terminology, so there’s no difference in understanding the terms and meanings for a nuclear incident of a hazmat or major natural incident.
The Nuclear Renaissance has started. The current emergency management programs are strong, having been exercised and inspected and under constant technological and programmatic improvement for more than 30 years.
Emergency management has been an integral partner in the early nuclear era and will continue to be as the next generation of nuclear plants comes on line. All of this effort is focused on our core mission of ensuring the public’s health and safety.